With Obamacare repeal teetering on collapse, tax reform looking like an even heavier lift and the Trump White House spinning further into chaos, Republicans are increasingly worried that they may squander unified control of government and fail to score any big legislative achievements.
“It’s upside down, what do you want me to say?” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) told TPM when asked how things were going within his party.
“It’s been some of the most chaotic six, seven months I’ve ever spent here. I’ve been here 20 years, with a Democratic president just sworn in, a Republican president just sworn in, and this has been somewhat of a chaotic circus,” Jones continued. “It’s going to be very difficult to get any major legislation through Congress this year, and I think next year there’ll be even less of a chance.”
The libertarian-leaning Jones, a frequent critic of his party’s leaders, is no bellwether. But even top Republicans close to leadership who rarely sound their frustrations publicly aren’t happy about how things are going, and worry that if they don’t get on the same page soon they might miss the window of opportunity to pass any major legislation before scandal politics and the 2018 midterms put a halt to any chances of lawmaking on controversial issues.
“The bottom line is we have found a way to mire ourselves into our own frustrations and we’ve got to end that,” House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) told TPM, saying internal tensions and distrust within the party are as bad as he’s seen in years, calling it “sobering” that Trump is already one-eighth through his term and warning the GOP needs to get moving — and fast.
“There’s a song, parts of a song: ‘Change your evil ways,’” he said. “We have to get it together. That’s our job.”
Republican lawmakers are getting tired of waiting and fooling around.
The Senate heads into the final week of July trying to resuscitate its attempts to repeal Obamacare, a prospect that looks bleaker by the day, while conservative groups warn of recriminations and party strategists worry about a depressed GOP base in 2018.
Congressional chaos has nothing on the White House, as shown by Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s Friday resignation and Trump’s broadsides against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
As administration aides bicker and brawl, Hill Republicans complain that Trump isn’t getting them nominees fast enough to confirm and worry that with an unpredictable president mired in scandal they don’t have much time to get things done before a tough 2018 midterm environment overwhelms other efforts. And they say that the Russia investigation is proving more than a distraction for the White House — and could be an existential threat.
“Republicans have to understand that this Russia thing isn’t going to go away. I don’t think it’ll knock Trump out, but I don’t know everything there is to know,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “If Trump gets impeached or resigns or has another kind of fuckup that’s going to ultimately drive this election.”
The possibility of impeachment is a long way away, but things are only heating up as the FBI’s probe expands into Trump’s business dealings and congressional committees threaten to haul up top Trump aides, including his children, for public grilling. The drip-drip of scandal could turn into a downpour washing out all other efforts as the investigations intensify.
Presidents usually have their biggest successes early in their first terms — especially those with unified control of Congress. But first-year presidents also usually have approval ratings higher than 40 percent, the current average of recent polls. Republicans worry that the Trump administration’s internal problems and the Senate’s inability to agree on a compromise Obamacare repeal bill could sink their overall legislation.
“The reality is success begets success in legislating and politics, and it is much easier to get big things done when you’ve already proven and demonstrated the capacity to do it,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“It seems like people are not operating in a good faith effort to get something done here,” said one senior Republican with past Capitol Hill experience, warning that distrust was mounting between individual members and between Congress and a White House that has been scattershot in its demands and haphazard in its support, with its own competing power centers and a mounting crisis around the FBI’s investigation.
McConnell and Ryan spokesmen said passing major legislation is always a huge challenge — something rank-and-file members agreed with. They highlighted successes like confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, repealing regulations and reforming the Veterans Administration, and argued that they’ll have more success when they can pivot from the deeply emotional issue of health care to tax reform, which they say is less personal and easier to do, and infrastructure investment.
“As Republicans, we are wired the same way on tax reform,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters on Friday, according to the Boston Globe. “Obviously, we’ve seen in the Senate there are a difference of opinions on how to do health care reform. We are so much more unified on tax reform, on what it looks like, and how to do it, and the need to do it.”
But members of his own caucus strongly disagree, warning things will only get worse.
“Nope. I think potentially it’s even harder,” Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-FL) told TPM when asked if he thought tax reform would be easier than health care to shepherd through Congress. “I believe it to be more difficult, equally if not more complex and with a lot more landmines than health care.”
“Anyone who thinks this is going to be a simple task hasn’t been around tax legislation,” said former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), who served both as chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee and as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee while in Congress. “The House, Senate and president need to put some points on the board ahead of the 2018 election. … The House could be in play if they’re not careful.”